This is a story about the endurance of the human soul, about choosing to be who you would like to be rather than believing you were cut with a mold that can’t be broken. But also it’s a story about forgiveness, the freedom of choice and the long road one must walk between one’s beginning and one’s end, and all the causes and effects in-between. Steinbeck’s masterpiece, for to call it anything less is impossible, has left me with a sense of loss. When I came to the end of this epic tale of family and humanity, I felt abandoned simply because I ran out of words to read. I wanted to carry on in his characters’ lives, spying on their darkness, watching them evolve and bloom and outrun the forces haunting them. No book has made me feel quite so much sadness and excitement at once. Perhaps because I’m a writer, I relished the painterliness of Steinbeck’s prose. I turned every single one of its six-hundred and one pages at a furious pace, and yet I indulged and languished and roamed the landscape he had painted for me, and me alone.
The story is so personal, a reader might feel it is written for her. It is a story we must hear, a story we know, a story with which we can connect, as we do with all the ones passed down from civilization to civilization. We commune with great stories, religious accounts, epic tales, because we see ourselves most readily in them, and as Lee (one of Eden’s finest characters) says, that’s why we keep telling, and retelling, them from one generation to the next. Steinbeck draws on the Old Testament, turning over the story of Cain and Abel and making it his, for us anew. And because we see ourselves in it—our good and evil—we devour his retelling as though it were medicine to save our soul, the cure for all our ails. But perhaps I exaggerate, indulging in the power of the writer a little too much. Or maybe I do feel my soul a little shaken by my experience, swept up in the writer’s magic. Either way, I am satisfied to credit Steinbeck for my joy at venturing into his Eden.
And it is the great landscape, the backdrop of his tale that speaks most readily to the reader. Steinbeck’s setting is in fact a large part of the whole. Like the characters he unearths, the soil on which they stand seems to reach for the sky, yearning to live too. You can’t read East of Eden without experiencing the tan valleys of Northern California and the lush green dales of Connecticut. You see his East and his West, you practically smell the air of each, and you believe the world he creates to be the same one in which you live. The opening of the book sets you up for that, tells you, dear reader, you will feel every ounce of nature’s beauty just as the narrator does; her dangerous flirtations, her permanency, her changeability, her gales, her forces, her perpetual and enduring spirit. We do not simply live in nature, but come from it. We embody it; all her forces. I think Steinbeck reminds us of this in such subtle and rare ways it seeps into the subconscious as we follow his narrator through the story of Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and all the characters in-between and after.
“I remember my childhood names for the grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.”
Effortlessly, Steinbeck strings you along with his prose, fooling you into not seeing the great and gargantuan task he is laying before you. “Timshel,” he teaches you. “Thou mayest,” the two words from Genesis that seem to speak most profoundly, for they admit to free will, and your ability to choose to rule over sin. John Milton’s Paradise Lost also speaks of this freedom, one in which man has often stumbled, misunderstanding his disobedience, his choice between good and evil. Steinbeck examines this idea throughout the narrative, and shows you the outcomes of those who struggle with the same, and it is in their differences that choice becomes apparent.
I have said little about the characters, the plot, the style and themes, and yet I have said everything I can about a work that has touched me so deeply. I will leave you with this short quote, said once again by Lee, the Chinese American who is the most philosophical, and enlightened of Steinbeck’s family of characters, the sage most inborn to the writer:
“But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
Title: East of Eden
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin Books, Centennial Edition (2002)